Grim up North

1.14pm
Following a five-year investigation the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal yesterday suspended three partners from Raleys Solicitors over the firm’s relationship with the National Union of Miners.


Grim up North18 February, 1.14pm

Following a five-year investigation the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) yesterday suspended three partners from Raleys Solicitors over the firm’s relationship with the National Union of Miners (NUM) (see story).

The firm accepted a £4m loan from the NUM but did not ask the union to take independent legal advice over the relationship.

The union provided the firm with clients in return for a cut of the compensation awarded to the client. The firm never told clients that they might be better off with lawyers who would not deduct anything from their settlement, even though the money went to the union rather than Raleys itself.

The Tribunal heard that Raleys had become over reliant on work generated by the union. Tribunal chairman Derek Leverton said this was “a situation which eats away at the independence of solicitors and blinds them to their professional duties towards their individual clients”, creating “a clear conflict of interest”.

The hearing also ruled that an agreement made between Raleys and so-called claims farm Zuko Legal, which saw the firm take on 19,000 claims, some of which were the result of cold-calling, was against the professional code of conduct.

Finding six of the firm’s partners guilty of misconduct, Leverton said the case was a “tragedy for Raleys”. Could it be that Leverton was expressing a degree of sympathy for the firm’s partners?

The four-year suspension given to senior partner Derek Firth might be considered light touch compared with the fate of Jim Beresford of Beresfords Solicitors, who was struck off for his role in the miners’ compensation scheme scandal (15 December 2008).

Leverton was careful to point out that Raleys “never took a penny” from the compensation packages, adding that there was “no suggestion that Raleys’ service was in any way deficient”. The Raleys partners were, said Leverton, “proficient and efficient” litigators.

These were lawyers caught up in a compensation scheme that went unmonitored by the Department of Trade and Industry, the government department that set it up.

In 2000 the Law Society conducted its own review of the firm and exonerated it of any wrongdoing. For the last five years the six partners at the centre of the case, said Leverton, have been subjected to inaccurate press reporting and unfounded criticism from MPs.

Regardless of that, the crux of the matter is whether the Raleys lawyers put their own interests before that of the profession.

Although they argued that they were acting in good faith, the Tribunal found otherwise. Whether this can be interpreted as any kind of tragedy for the firm is debatable. The fact that sick miners lost a chunk of the money they were entitled to, regardless of who was to blame, is the real tragedy.